The Biden administration next week will begin conducting asylum interviews at the border while it expands access to legal services for migrants seeking refuge in the U.S., according to two administration officials. The latter a key issue that emerged during attempts to fast-track processing under the Trump administration.
Starting with a small number of migrants, asylum officers will begin holding what are known as “credible fear” screening interviews with those at U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities, the officials told ABC News. The interviews are among the first steps required to make an asylum claim.
Currently, the screening interviews are conducted only after migrants leave CBP custody. But the Biden administration is anticipating a potential influx of asylum seekers amid the end of pandemic-era rules that gave border officials power to swiftly return migrants back to Mexico or their home countries.
With those powers ending along with the official national pandemic emergency status next month, the administration has been working to increase the pace of migrant processing, including a move last year that allows asylum officers to decide cases on behalf of immigration judges.
The asylum interviews will move forward as the Department of Homeland Security works to expand access to legal resources for migrants in border facilities. The ability to access resources needed to make an effective asylum claim has been sharply curtailed by the pandemic-era restrictions brought down under Title 42 of the U.S. code, experts and immigrant advocates have long warned.
“DHS will work with legal service providers to provide access to legal services for individuals who receive credible fear interviews in CBP custody,” a DHS spokesperson said in a statement. “This is part of a planning effort underway to initiate a process that would allow migrants to receive credible fear interviews from specially trained U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officers while still in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody.”
CBP officers and Border Patrol agents will not conduct the interviews, the spokesperson said. Credible fear interviews for those in custody are typically conducted by asylum officers over the phone.
One official described the new interview process working similarly as it does for those in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. However, ICE facilities typically have more physical space for attorney-client consultation compared to Border Patrol stations and legal advisors have more time to get access when detainees are held for longer periods.
“Border Patrol has historically prevented attorney access in CBP facilities, only allowing them in during limited circumstances,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, Policy Director at the American Immigration Council, a leading center for immigration policy analysis. “There aren't dedicated attorney visitation spaces, and agents are constantly moving people from place to place and don't want civilians wandering around.”
Similar concerns were raised when the Trump administration attempted to fast-track border station processing prior to implementation of the Title 42 expulsion process at the beginning of the pandemic. A 2021 federal watch dog report found the attempt to speed up asylum processing in 2019 was “not effectively implemented” and that “legal amenities were not conducive to allowing [noncitizens] to prepare for credible fear screening interviews.”
A Biden administration official stressed that border station interviews will only increase as migrants get more connected with legal service providers. CBP has already expanded consultation spaces and private phone booths, the official said.
Migration Policy Institute Senior Fellow Muzaffar Chishti told ABC News that -- based on his recent trips to border facilities -- he believes the infrastructure is in place effectively ramp up processing as the administration intends.
"I have to say that this is actually moving in the right direction," Chishti. "If they do it well, it's going in the right direction."
Last year, the Biden administration announced a new process -- also aligned with speeding up claims -- that would allow asylum officers to decide cases on behalf of immigration judges. Chishti said the administration's ability to become more efficient in handling claims will likely come down to how broadly the asylum officer adjudication policy is implemented.